The Actor Who Sounds Like Lincoln and Became More
David Selby is not related to Abraham Lincoln, nor is he a Lincoln impersonator. He has been Lincoln, often, on stage, and he has written about Lincoln, most notably in a novel. He has undoubtedly dreamed about him.
On the phone, Selby sounds like Lincoln, which is a funny thing to think since nobody living actually knows what Lincoln sounded like. Selby has a kind of warm, gruff, down-to-earth voice that also makes him a good listener, the voice has a regional identity not far removed from the Midwest and points just below. He was born and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, a border state somewhat like Kentucky, from which people moved west, meaning Illinois and Missouri.
“I know, you have nothing really to draw on when you’re saying his words or words that have been written for him,” Selby said. He was in the final week or so of “Necessary Sacrifices,” a new play which ended its run at Ford’s Theatre Feb. 18. The play, by Richard Hellesen, imagines, very effectively by all accounts, meetings between the country’s most beloved and haunting president and Frederick Douglass, the fiery, intense African-American abolitionist and civil rights leader of the period. “I’ve read an uncommon amount about Lincoln and written some, too, and from all accounts he actually had something of a high-pitched voice. I imagine most people imagine it otherwise.”
Lincoln moved in and out of Selby’s life almost from the beginning of his adulthood. “I went to school in Illinois, and because I was tall and kind of lanky, like Lincoln, I often got asked to portray him in plays, and such. There was Salem, a town where he spent his youth, and its Lincoln museum. So, I did a lot of Lincoln work there,” Selby said. “He kind of haunts you. The man dripped melancholy. He was inspiring -- he had this quality of being preternaturally eloquent -- and down to earth. For a man who was often acutely sad he had a wonderful sense of humor. He told those salty stories and jokes just about everywhere he went.”
Selby also portrayed Lincoln in unforgettable fashion four years ago at Ford’s when, after a major renovation, it re-opened with “The Heavens Are Hung In Black,” a long, compelling play about Lincoln’s White House years. Selby, it seemed to me, embodied the man and the president, the husband, the father who suffered a loss as great as any in the country, the theater buff.
“Wasn’t that a wonderful scene? I loved playing that,” Selby said, referring to a scene in which the restless Lincoln wanders into a theater and encounters a group of actors rehearsing “Henry V” and debated the issue of which were the best lines in the play. “He loved the theater, he saw all the Booths, including his assassin.”
Selby doesn’t really need Lincoln to have an outstanding performing career. His stage career includes “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” Broadway and road companies of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Much Ado About Nothing” when he and Kelly McGillis provided memorable performances in the Shakespeare comedy which opened the Shakespeare Theatre Company move to the Lansburgh Theatre.
But on television, he’s got enduring pop culture fame, as one of the principals in “Dark Shadows,” the cultishly popular daytime vampire soap opera, as well as being a regular on night time hits “Falcon Crest” and “Flamingo Road.”
He’s got a part in the highly anticipated Tim Burton movie version of "Dark Shadows,” which stars Johnny Depp. “They took me on the set in London,” he said. “They’ve created a whole world ground up, it’s a huge set. It was a delight being there.”
“Necessary Sacrifices” was warmly received here, although it had its troubles, with the actor initially playing Douglass dropping out and being replaced by Craig Wallace. “Craig did a terrific job, I have to tell you,” Selby said. “We got things going quickly, it was a smooth transition.”
All other credits and multi-tasking, multi-talented qualities aside, though, Selby has Lincoln with him always. “Playing him is a challenge, and I guess a responsibility,” he said. “You never get to the bottom of him. The balancing of man and myth, legend and human being, that’s the challenge. But I never get tired of playing Lincoln.”
It may be Lincoln who brings Selby home, to his better angels, as he does for everyone. From everything written about him — the poetic books by Sandburg, the poems by Whitman, the histories and biographies, never stopping like a factory — you get the sense that Lincoln wore and played the president’s role well without ever having to put on a mask that hid his humanity. Selby’s voice in that sense sounds like Lincoln’s.